Russ Smith came off the bench for Louisville last season, when the Cardinals lost in the Final Four to archrival and eventual champion Kentucky.
To hear Cardinals' coach Rick Pitino tell it, that was a different year and a different player. It's just now that Smith's story is only beginning to be told because of big-time performances on a grand stage.
The 6-foot-1 junior averaged 25 points in the first two games of the NCAA Tournament last weekend, and he'd much rather have you hear about his 15 steals in the postseason, including the Big East tournament. For all the production, Smith has gone relatively unnoticed, yet to be named to a national first- or second-team All-American list.
"He picks up full court, he's always looking for a steal, off the ball he's denying, then he's running pick and rolls, then he's cutting, then he's scoring. You know what type of shape you have to be in to play like Peyton Siva and Russ Smith do?" Pitino remarked.
"So I don't think it's any slight to Russ. I just think he's a great basketball player. I'm fortunate enough to coach him. He's going to be a really good NBA player because defensively and offensively with a 24-second clock and what I call today an 18-second shot clock, that's what the pros are all about, a guy like Russ Smith is really hell."
With Smith and Siva at the controls, the Cardinals (31-5) are hailed as the team to beat in the Midwest, the top overall seed in the 2013 NCAA Tournament. Oregon, seeded 12th, stands out of a regional semifinal bracket that also has No. 2 Duke and No. 3 Michigan State. The Ducks have turned heads in two tournament games, and not just with their metallic green and gold uniforms.
"I mean, at the beginning of the season they had us as a we were going to finish seventh in the Pac-12," said Oregon forward Arsalan Kazemi of preseason media expectations. "We proved them wrong and we came (to San Jose). And we just decided as a team we're going to go out there and we don't care who we're going to play. As I said before, it's 64 great teams and they all can play. And it was kind of like a four team tournament for us, that we had to win the championship here. I think we beat the two teams we were supposed to beat. And we have to look forward from here and play Louisville next."
Oregon coach Dana Altman said he needs better defense from the Ducks after a 74-57 win over No. 4 seed St. Louis. The Ducks don't oppose a frenetic pace, and Altman said last season that the best way to counter-punch against pressure defense is to put the pressure back on them -- by consistently breaking the press and capitalizing on three-on-two or two-on-one fastbreak chances.
Will the Ducks have the stamina to sustain the type of pressure that makes Louisville's constricting defense click?
"If coach is not tired, then we can't be tired," Smith said. "We get all our energy and fearlessness from coach. He drives us every day, and, you know, (if) we let him down, we feel like we're letting all of us down, each other, the whole Louisville, our staff and trainers. We just go out there, play with tremendous effort and that will come from our coach."
Duke and Michigan State meet in the main event slot in Indianapolis on Friday at 9:45 p.m. ET. The powerhouses roll into Lucas Oil Stadium for the regional semifinal banged up. Keith Appling (left knee, right shoulder) isn't expected to be full strength, but coach Tom Izzo said not to bet against the Spartans' leading scorer (13.3 points per game).
"I am anxious today to see whether it bothers him shooting, because it is his right arm. That's the only thing that's left, but he shot free throws on that yesterday and didn't seem to have any problems," Izzo said.
Duke's Seth Curry (shin) struggled with his shot against Creighton in Sunday's 66-50 victory and has been less effective in games following limited rest of two days or less. Forward Ryan Kelly said he's recovered from a right foot injury that kept him out of the lineup for almost two months, but he's still wearing a stabilizing boot when he's not on the basketball court.
"It's feeling OK," said Curry, who had 26 points on 10-of-14 shooting Friday against Albany but went 5 of 15 against Creighton. "It's getting a little bit better as the year has gone along, and we're doing a great job of just getting it ready for the next day, next game. Just quick turnarounds."